With 164 pianos valued at more than $2.7 million in its collection, the School of Music has a considerable amount invested in its keyboards. Almost every day of the year, dozens of these instruments are in use by faculty, students, and guest artists who rely on the fact that they're in excellent repair and in tune for their concerts, rehearsals, and lessons.
The man responsible for keeping them in action is piano technician Don McKechnie, who’s been rising to the challenge since 1985. Though he’s loved music from childhood and took "the requisite piano lessons," McKechnie came to the profession in a rather roundabout way. He served in the United States Air Force, during which time he took piano lessons from a teacher who tuned pianos on the side. When McKechnie left the service, he continued taking lessons while attending Staten Island Community College. It was during that time, recalls McKechnie, that "I realized I wouldn’t be a performer, but I had good mechanical skills." He had another professor who tuned pianos as a sideline business; the professor; suggested McKechnie look into piano technology. He tried a correspondence course before a mentor steered him to the North Bennet Street School in Boston, the oldest and most prestigious piano technology school in the United States. There he found his love for the craft.
After graduating from North Bennet’s rigorous hands-on program, McKechnie returned to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and began working in the profession. "I went to work for a high-volume piano dealer to cut my teeth on concert work," he says. He also established a private tuning practice and worked part-time as a tuner for the music department at West Chester State College.
In 1985, while attending a conference of the Piano Technicians Guild in Ithaca, McKechnie learned of a piano technician opening at the College. He applied for and landed the job.
The facilities McKechnie had to work with when he first started at IC were a far cry from the workshop he now utilizes in the two-year-old James J. Whalen Center for Music. When he first arrived, he was given two practice rooms in Ford Hall; one served as his workshop, the other as his office. It was a less-than-ideal situation for McKechnie, who needed space for his repair equipment, and for the students whose rehearsal space he had commandeered. A few years later, his shop was moved to a converted custodial closet on the third floor. Although this space was a bit larger, only one piano could be in the shop at a time.
A Room of Our Own
When initial plans were drawn for the Whalen Center, McKechnie worked with the planners to develop the "ideal piano shop." The result is a large workroom, plus a machine room that McKechnie shares with instrument repair technician Doug Blakely. Now McKechnie has the machinery he needs to rebuild pianos and the space to work on several pianos at a time. The tools make it possible for him to do large jobs, such as replacing the pin block in a piano, as well as small jobs, such as shaping piano hammers. McKechnie now teaches his piano technology class, which covers the history and mechanics of the piano, in his workshop.
The new workspace has been especially helpful in McKechnie’s latest projects. Three piano donations have been made to the school since the addition and renovation of the music building. The family of Anne Blodgett, who taught English at Ithaca College from the 1940s until 1968, donated a 1908 Knabe grand piano; Frances Kratil, parent of Edward ’01, donated a 1908 Bluthner grand piano; and President’s Associates member and Longview resident Ernest Rudinger donated a 1925 Ehrbar grand piano. "Each piano needed some work, but each was of such an initial high quality that it made them worthwhile investments," explains McKechnie. When he has finished the renovations on these instruments, they will be placed in teaching studios. These donations to the piano inventory, says McKechnie, are "a real benefit to the school and the performers here."
McKechnie gets a chance to play and work on many different pianos in the collection, but his favorite is the Bösendorfer, which the College acquired in 1989 from Cornell University. The Bösendorfer Company built this imperial concert grand piano exclusively for famous pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who owned it from 1953 to 1976. In addition to having an extra nine notes on the bottom, the 1,200-pound instrument has two actions (the mechanism that includes the keys and piano hammers), which can be switched, depending on the acoustical needs of the individual performer. This piano was Badura-Skoda’s European recording and touring instrument and can be heard on most of his recordings from that time. "It is," says McKechnie, "a unique and historically significant instrument."
One of many in the
IC collection that McKechnie cares for well. And when we’re all in the
mood for a melody, it’s good that he’s got them feeling all right.
Photo by George Sapio
A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 21. Mar. 2002